HELLO, HOLLYWOOD: YOUR IMAGES AFFECT MUSLIMS
By Akbar Ahmed
Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American
University, Washington, D.C,. and author of "Islam Today: A Short
Introduction to the Muslim World." From 1998 to 2000, Ahmed was High
Commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain.
WASHINGTON -- It is now widely recognized that there are two wars
being fought in Asia: The first is military, and in this we hear talk
of B-1 and B-2 bombers and Tomahawk missiles. The second war is for the
hearts and minds of the West and the Muslim world.
The first war appears to be proceeding successfully: Kabul, the capital
of Afghanistan, has fallen. The fate of the second, however, is undecided.
Osama bin Laden T-shirts, which were selling for 50 rupees each a few
weeks ago, are now selling for 700 rupees in Pakistan. Since September,
10,000 fathers have named their sons "Osama" in Pakistan alone.
Aware of this, U.S. President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony
Blair have been reiterating to the world and to the media that, "Ours
is not a war against Islam." In fact, they have gone to great lengths
to listen to Muslim voices, with Bush even taking the time to visit an
Islamic center in Washington.
But America has been present in the Islamic world for a long time already
through the impact of Hollywood -- both in its portrayal of Muslims and
by its sometimes morally subversive message to traditional cultures.
Hollywood has been at war with Islam for the last two decades. Major Hollywood
blockbusters such as "True Lies," "Executive Decision"
and "The Siege," with top stars headlining their casts, have
perpetuated an "Islam equals terrorism" image. Films such as
these have conditioned the American public to expect the worst from a
civilization depicted as "terrorist," "fundamentalist"
and "fanatic." So powerful has this image been that popular
culture makes the equation without thinking about it. In a recent episode
of "The Simpsons," some furtive-looking Middle Eastern men approach
Mr. Burns to buy uranium. Even a popular cartoon depicts Muslims as sinister
psychopathic terrorists. This is why, when the Murrah Federal Building
in Oklahoma City was bombed several years ago, the explosions were instinctively
blamed on Muslims. It was hard for the media to accept that a white Anglo-Saxon
Protestant American man was guilty of such a crime.
Commentators associated Muslims with the Sept. 11 attacks from the moment
the news broke. Osama bin Laden, who had threatened the United States
with mass terror previously, was widely believed to be the culprit.
Reports of the harassment of Muslims and attacks on mosques immediately
began. Arabs and Pakistanis were killed. Even a Sikh was killed because
people mistook his beard and turban as identifiers that he was a Muslim.
Hollywood and the media had done its job effectively, portraying a Muslim
as a man with a beard and a turban.
Yet the vast majority of Muslims strongly condemned the attacks of Sept.
11 and were horrified at the loss of the innocent lives. It is not widely
known, but several hundred Muslims working in the World Trade Center were
among the innocent dead.
Where do we go from here? What can Hollywood do to not only make amends
for contributing to this negative image, but to move the world toward
dialogue and understanding, and away from the clash of civilizations that
is in danger of forming?
Several steps are necessary:
First, there must be a conscious attempt to check the portrayal of Muslims
as terrorists and psychopathic lunatics who want to blow up the Western
world. As Hollywood did with the African-American community a few decades
ago, a conscious attempt must be made to show Muslims in ordinary, everyday
Second, films could be made with Muslim heroes or main characters. It
is important to mention that Hollywood was not always negative, no matter
what some Muslims may say in this regard. Its portrayal of Muslims earlier
on may have been stereotypical, but it was also affectionate. Valentino
played in "The Sheik" and Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson played
swashbuckling characters from "The Arabian Nights." And who
can forget Rex Harrison, made up with thick layers of black polish to
play the legendary Muslim leader, Saladin, and the comical singsong accent
he used for the role? It is only in the last two decades that the Muslim
image has changed to one of a psychopathic terrorist.
It was precisely to battle Hollywood's images of terrorist Muslims that
I launched the Jinnah Quartet a decade ago. This consisted of a major
feature film called "Jinnah," a documentary, "Mr. Jinnah
-- the Making of Pakistan," an academic book, "Jinnah, Pakistan
and Islamic Identity," and a graphic novel.
M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was a moderate Muslim leader who
believed in human rights, women's rights, minority rights and upholding
the constitution. Re-creating the image of Jinnah, I hoped, would help
Muslims to rediscover their democratic roots. While I worked on the quartet
I also wrote scholarly articles, pointing out that if the Jinnah model
failed, then the model of people like Osama bin Laden would dominate the
hearts and minds of the young generation.
The film starred international actors such as Christopher Lee and James
Fox. After overcoming immense hurdles, the film was completed. When shown
at film festivals, such as those held at Houston and Zanzibar, "Jinnah"
won top awards. It was also shown to studio executives and launched in
Hollywood. The executives and the Hollywood press gave it first-class
reviews, but no one would take it for distribution. We were told that
popcorn-guzzling Midwest audiences, which determine the success or failure
of a film, were not quite ready for a Muslim character in the role of
a hero. "Jinnah" still awaits distribution.
Finally, Hollywood must appreciate its historic role in the creation of
the image of Muslims through rigorous self-analysis. Its global impact
ensures a reach around the world. Even the most traditional societies
see Hollywood films and enjoy them. Some films are deeply disturbing to
traditional societies, however. Many people in Africa and Asia view films
glorifying sex and violence and equate these to American culture. These
secular images are the cause for much of the anger and hatred that exists
in the world against America. Crass, secular films are partly the answer
to the question Bush asked, "Why do they hate us?"
The impact of Hollywood films hit home to me in a dramatic way earlier
this year, when I was teaching at Princeton University, Nafees, my 10-year-old
daughter, came home from school humming the latest pop song from the film
"Moulin Rouge." I had not seen the film, so I didn't hone in
on the words at first. When I did, I was shocked by how such songs permeate
even the minds of elementary-school-aged children. My little girl was
wandering through the house singing, "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi,"
translated, "Will you sleep with me?
I asked Nafees whether she knew what the words meant. She didn't. I calmly
explained the translation to her, and she understood my concern. But I
also thought of parents around the world who would have perhaps been not
just concerned, but alarmed and even outraged. Some of them would have
blamed Hollywood for reaching into their homes and corrupting the minds
of their children.
Hollywood needs not only to entertain the world, but also to understand
the impact it has on shaping ideas. It needs to heed Bush's plea to depict
Islam in a more understanding manner.
Today, there are mobs throughout the world that understand America's war
on terrorism as a war of civilizations, as a war against Islam, and they
are in the mood to fight to maintain their ideals. In the last few days
Christians have been killed in churches in Pakistan; churches have been
burned in Malaysia; Christians and Muslims have killed each other in Nigeria.
All this has nothing to do with Hollywood, but Hollywood is an important
piece of the jigsaw puzzle that makes up our turbulent, dangerous and
(c) 2001, Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune
For immediate release (Distributed 11/19/01)